Presidents in person: Go back in time and see when former presidents visited Grand Forks

It's a rare occurrence, but sitting U.S. presidents have visited Grand Forks, seeking support and spreading their messages to local audiences

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Langer.jpg
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (left) is seated with North Dakota Gov. William Langer in this photo taken when FDR visited Grand Forks for the dedication of the grandstand at the Grand Forks County Fairgrounds in October 1937. (Photo courtesy of UND Special Collections)
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GRAND FORKS – As campaigning for the 2022 midterm elections heats up across the country this fall, modern-day tactics to win votes stand in stark contrast to a time, decades ago, when candidates for higher office took their messages to the people in a more direct and accessible way.

Years ago, serious campaigning for political office meant meeting voters face to face, sometimes in their own backyards.

President Harry Truman was among the dignitaries who toured North Dakota by train, making whistlestop visits to communities here in late September 1952.

Before the nationwide general election that fall, Truman was drumming up support for Democrat presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, who was running against Dwight Eisenhower.

In addition to Grand Forks, Truman also addressed crowds in other North Dakota towns, including Larimore, Lakota, Devils Lake and Rugby. He was accompanied on the train by his wife, First Lady Bess Truman, and U.S. Sen. William Langer of North Dakota.


‘She was pretty thrilled’

Tim Lamb, of Grand Forks, recalled that his mother and brother, Mary Jean and Larry Lamb, were photographed greeting Truman at the local depot. Larry was 2 at the time.

President Truman was riding the Great Northern train on his way from Chicago to Seattle, Lamb said. “He used to like to travel by train.”

Lamb said he thinks his mother “was just curious and got down there (to the depot).” The family lived in or near downtown, so she had a short distance to walk.

This photo from the Grand Forks centennial book shows Mary Jean Lamb, holding her son, Larry, as she greeted President Harry Truman and First Lady Bess Truman (left) in 1952 in Grand Forks.
Photo courtesy of Grand Forks County Historical Society

“She was pretty thrilled to see him,” he said. “You can tell by her expression in the photo that she’s quite taken by it.”

Later, she told her family “he’s really a nice man — and people-oriented,” he remembered.

At one time, Mary Jean Lamb ran for the state Legislature, seeking to serve in the House of Representatives, he said. “As a Democrat, she was pretty big in the Democratic Party, and was helping out on campaigns and stuff.”

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President Harry Truman prepares to give a speech over the radio during his visit to Grand Forks on Sept. 29, 1952.
Photo courtesy of UND Special Collections

As a boy growing up on the family farm in rural Larimore, North Dakota, Mike Bailey, remembered his mother, Marcia Bailey, taking him and his brother, Terry — her oldest children — to the depot in Larimore to see Truman. He was 5 and his brother was 4, he said.

Bailey, who lives in Duluth, Minnesota, said his parents and grandparents were Democrats.


The train stopped for a short time and Truman spoke from the rear platform, Bailey recalled. “He was campaigning for Adlai Stevenson. It seemed like there were a lot of people there. It’s a pretty big deal when the president comes to a town the size of Larimore.”

Judy DeMers, who represented a portion of Grand Forks for 18 years in the Legislature until 2000, was only 8 when Truman made his only visit to Grand Forks.

“I remember my dad taking me and sitting on his shoulders to see (Truman),” she said. Her dad was Robert (Bob) Prosser. “Mostly, I remember the huge crowd.”

Truman’s visit to Grand Forks included a stop at KILO Radio, where he spoke to listeners. The KILO radio station broadcast out of Grand Forks from 1941 to 1962, according to UND Special Collections.

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U.S. Representative Thomas Kleppe (R-ND) and President Richard Nixon (right) appear on the ramp of Air Force One at the Grand Forks Airport in 1970, when the pair visited Grand Forks. (Photo courtesy of UND Special Collections)

Other presidential visits

Other sitting presidents, too, have visited Grand Forks — to campaign and for other purposes — including Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was here to dedicate the Grand Forks County fairgrounds’ grandstand in October 1937; John F. Kennedy, who spoke at and received an honorary degree at UND on Sept. 25, 1963; Richard Nixon in 1970; Ronald Reagan in 1986; and Bill Clinton in the spring of 1997, shortly after the Flood of 1997 devastated the Red River Valley region. In September 2020, President Donald Trump came to Bemidji to campaign for a second term as president.

According to various internet searches, a number of presidents also have made stops in Fargo and Bismarck, including Donald Trump, who visited Fargo in 2018 and also spoke in Mandan in 2017.

Nixon and Thomas Kleppe deplane from Air Force One.jpg
President Richard Nixon, followed by U.S. Representative Thomas Kleppe (R-ND), step down the ramp from Air Force One for a visit to Grand Forks in 1970. (Photo courtesy of UND Special Collections)

Historical photos show FDR riding down University Avenue in an open vehicle with Gov. William Langer at his side.


President Theodore Roosevelt visited Grand Forks in 1912, after his term in office had ended. He was campaigning for another presidential run, which was unsuccessful. President Franklin Roosevelt visited Devils Lake in August 1934, and Former President William Howard Taft visited that city to give a speech at a Chautauqua event in July 1920, after his term as president ended and shortly before he became a Supreme Court justice — the only person to serve in both roles.

Thomas Kleppe, Glendora Kleppe, Nixon, Mary Andrews, Mark Andrews.jpg
U.S. Representative Thomas Kleppe (R-ND) is shown (from left) with his wife Glendora Kleppe, President Richard Nixon, and Mary and U.S. Senator Mark Andrews (R-ND) after deplaning Air Force One at the Grand Forks Airport in 1970. (Photo courtesy of UND Special Collections)

Before he became president, Barack Obama, then a senator from Illinois, visited Grand Forks in 2008 while on the campaign trail with running mate Hillary Clinton. He spoke at the state Democratic-NPL convention.

Joe Biden accepts an autographed Carson Wentz jersey from U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp at the conclusion of Biden's speech at the North Dakota Democratic convention in Grand Forks Saturday. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
In this Herald file photo, Joe Biden accepts an autographed Carson Wentz jersey from U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp at the conclusion of Biden's speech at the North Dakota Democratic convention in Grand Forks in March 2018. (Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)

In 2018, Former Vice President Joe Biden visited Grand Forks to campaign for U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) in her reelection bid, which she eventually lost to Kevin Cramer. Biden spoke to those gathered for the state Democratic-NPL convention and others at the Alerus Center in March that year, urging them to vote for Heitkamp in the November Senate race.

Former President Bill Clinton and former Grand Forks mayor Pat Owens
In this Herald file photo from 2012, Former President Bill Clinton is cheered on by supporters following his speech in downtown Grand Forks at the flood obelisk. Former Grand Forks mayor Pat Owens and other city officials from the Flood of 1997 in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks join Clinton on stage. President Clinton also visited the Grand Cities shortly after the flood in the spring of 1997. (Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)

Kennedy visit in 1963

During President John F. Kennedy’s visit to Grand Forks in September 1963 he received an honorary degree from UND. He was assassinated in Dallas two months later.

JoAnn Gregory, of Grand Forks, was a UND student in 1963, she said. She recalled putting her 4-year-old daughter on her shoulders and hiking to the fieldhouse to hear Kennedy speak.

UND students received passes to the building, Gregory said. She and her daughter sat at the far end of the fieldhouse, “up high, as I recall.”

President John F. Kennedy addresses the crowd at UND's fieldhouse in September 1963, two months before he was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas.
Photo courtesy of UND Special Collections

Also a UND student at the time, Jan Jelliff, of Grand Forks, said, “I can only speak for myself, but it seems to me that many of us were dazzled by President Kennedy — young, handsome, well-educated, Camelot.

“I don’t remember any of what he said that day, but I remember feeling inspired. The Hyslop was packed, and the crowd extremely receptive,” Jelliff said.

“After the speech, he left Hyslop to walk to the waiting helicopter on the grassy field that is now a parking lot, and crowds of students, me included, ran toward him with outstretched arms, like maybe we’d be lucky enough to shake hands or touch him. In my memory, there was only some rickety snow fence and a few Secret Service men between him and the crowd,” she said.

“When President Kennedy was assassinated such a short time later, I think the tragic loss seemed more personal to those of us who had just seen him in person.”

The audience who heard Kennedy speak at UND also included children.

Ilene Odegard remembers that her father took her out of elementary school so she could hear Kennedy’s speech.

“If my memory is correct, we sat in a tightly squeezed section of the Hyslop (fieldhouse),” said Odegard, of Fargo and formerly of rural Buxton, North Dakota. “And I remember my dad saying to me, ‘Today you are seeing history.’ Not that long after, JFK was assassinated and it was one of the only times I saw my dad cry.”

As Odegard and her father watched Kennedy address the crowd, she said, “I just remember the tremendous amount of respect that the audience gave JFK. He had a command and presence that was powerful.”

Her father, Orlando Odegard, and grandfather, Louis Odegard, were always active in politics and interested in bi-partisan efforts, she said. Louis (“Louie”) Odegard was a state representative in the 1930s.

President Kennedy speaks to the audience at the UND fieldhouse in September 1963, as dignitaries (seated from left) UND President George Starcher, North Dakota Governor William Guy and U.S. Senator Quentin Burdick (D-ND) look on.
Photo courtesy of UND Special Collections

‘It was packed’

Tim Lamb also recalled heading to the UND fieldhouse as an 8-year-old in the fall of 1963 to see Kennedy, he said. “I think I rode my bike and snuck in the back. It was packed. There were 10,000 kids running around. I wasn’t able to get close enough; it was tough to see him, but I heard him. I don’t recall much of it, I just recall it was huge. I got up on the walkway and could see better.

“Mother was in one of the front rows and a photographer snapped a photo of her and my brother Steve, standing on a chair, with Kennedy in the background.”

His brother, who was 6 or 7 at the time, still has that framed photo hanging in his law office in Fargo, Lamb said.

President John F. Kennedy smiles at the close of the ceremony, during which he received an honorary degree from UND. During the ceremony, he delivered a speech at the UND fieldhouse in September 1963. At right, UND President George Starcher applauds the visiting president. (Photo courtesy of UND Special Collections)

Judy DeMers, of Grand Forks and Phoenix, Arizona, also was in the crowd when Kennedy spoke at UND.

“I was a college sophomore and still thought I was a Republican, like my parents,” she said. “Roads were blocked so my sister, friend and I took the back road (now DeMers Avenue) and got to the fieldhouse without any difficulty. And, surprisingly, we got in without any difficulty.

“The crowd was loud and boisterous,” DeMers said. “I remember JFK as being very dynamic and having a good sense of humor. I can’t remember all the details of the speech, but I remember he made me feel good about our country. I was just very, very impressed by him."

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Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at or (701) 780-1107.
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